Supplements: Do You Need Them?

May 23, 2016

I’m often asked what I think about nutritional supplements and whether you should take them. In today’s article I thought I’d spend a few minutes answering this frequently asked question…

If you open any glossy magazine or newspapers or watch TV, you cannot fail to have been bombarded with advertisements and advertorials for nutritional supplements. Nutritional supplements fall broadly into two categories – performance enhancing and health enhancing and, according to the media, it seems like we should all be taking them. But, is this really the truth?

Supplements – nothing new!

Dietary supplements are nothing new – in ancient Rome, gladiators took dried, powdered bulls testes to give them strength and stamina while Vikings warriors, known as Berserkers, used bog myrtle to increase aggressiveness for battle. Many ancient medicines are now what we call supplements as they were basically herbs and spices consumed for medicinal reasons.

Supplements have, thankfully, come a long way since gladiators chowed down on bull’s balls but where those supplements were generally quite natural, modern supplements often aren’t. More on that later…

Fix the cause, not the symptom…

Most people take supplements because they want a specific result i.e. they take a fat burning supplement to help them lose weight or a vitamin supplement to ensure they are getting enough of what they need to be healthy. The problem is, most supplements are sold, bought and used with no attempt to address the underlying cause of what the consumer is trying to address.

For example, if your joints hurt, you may well take something like glucosamine or chondroitin but, you will probably find, your joint pain will get much better if you lose some weight, do some joint mobility exercises, and become generally more active.

Pills – not the cure for being overweight 

If you are overweight, the main causes are eating too much of the wrong kind of food and not doing enough physical activity – popping a diet pill is not going to do much for you if you don’t address these baseline issues and while I’m on the subject of diet pills, most are simply mega-doses of caffeine that will give you the jitters or contain ingredients that, while they are alleged to boost your metabolism, block carb or fat metabolism or otherwise improve your ability to burn fat, actually do very little of any of those things and are often very unhealthy – dangerous even.

Supplement quality – sometimes questionable

Then, let’s talk about supplement quality – many supplements contain low grade and possibly ineffective ingredients that do nothing but cost you money. The ingredients may well produce the desired results but only in their most concentrated (and expensive!) state – not what’s actually in the pills you have bought. If you spend time reading the research behind many supplements, you’ll often find that the people studied were also on a considerably higher dose that you are being told to take. This misleading information is then used in advertising the supplement.

You cannot out-supplement a bad diet!

Remember, even the best nutritional supplement in the world will be ineffective if your diet and levels of physical activity are not what they should be. Sadly, the day that we can pop a few supplements to burn fat, build muscle or make us super-healthy is a long way off. We still need to do the majority of the work by eating well and keeping active.

Supplements – optional, not essential

Does this mean that all supplements are completely worthless? Absolutely not, but it really does pay to do your homework and make sure you know exactly what you are taking and why. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet or unhealthy lifestyle and now I should add you can’t out-supplement one either!

Of course, that’s not to say supplementation doesn’t have its place but it is ESSENTIAL that you use the right supplements for your specific needs and always choose ones that are top quality. That way you’ll enjoy all of the benefits without any of the potential drawbacks.

Supplements such as multi-vitamins and minerals, fish oils and anti-oxidants can be useful as they provide a nutritional safety-net that means that, if your diet slips (as we all do from time to time) you’ll still have a good supply of nutrients. However, can these supplements make up for an otherwise unhealthy diet? The answer is no.

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